Do drugs really help the creative?

I usually refer to my first experience of a person probably on class A drugs as, “that one time I sort of helped save someone’s life.” I was seventeen, in Lanzarote, and still revelling at the fact that I was being served alcohol; let alone wanting anything particularly stronger. It had hit 4am, and a friend and I had decided that we couldn’t listen to another repeat of Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” in the club. Walking home, we noticed a girl across the road acting hysterical and staring down at the sheer drop between the road and the concrete far down below. “He’s jumped”, she kept saying, eyes wide and staring. I rang an ambulance whilst my friend found out that she was his girlfriend, he was nearly thirty and they had a few kids together. We got distracted as we saw the guy trying to climb the stairs back up to our level again, during which his girlfriend ran away. However my friend and I had intended to spend the night, I’m fairly sure that physically restraining an Irish man who kept saying he wanted to jump again and die but also have more cocaine was not it.

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Photo credit: GollyGForce

Since then, I’ve heard from numerous friends how they choose not to take drugs because they (sometimes rather smugly) “don’t need it”; but will be perfectly content with necking back drinks until they can’t walk straight. Despite the aforementioned less than ideal first experience, I’ve always seen it as just getting intoxicated one way or another; not quite smoking weed in a rasta hat whilst listening to Bob Marley or snorting cocaine out of a hooker’s arse. Is there a certain type of person, then, that is attracted to experimenting with recreational drugs? Or am I similar in any way to the guy who jumped (beyond both having terrible taste in holiday destinations)?

When I think of the most high-profile drug-users in our society, the creative types certainly spring to mind. Beyond pop-stars like Miley Cyrus “dancing with Molly”, at least five American writers who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature have been thought of as alcoholics. Hell, even Beethovan apparently drank as often as he wrote music. When doing research for this article, I expected to find a number of creative people like Aldous Huxley sing praises of the creative juice drugs might be able to give you (though I have yet to write a symphony when intoxicated). However, the quotes I found from more modern artist were far more bleak. Kurt Cobain summed this up bluntly; “drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self esteem.”

“Perhaps it’s so easy to find quotes about the darkest places drug taking can go because, as a society, we find it easier to publicise drugs in the black and white categories of “legal” or “illegal” rather than consider the more complex side” Maybe we find it easier, or at least more interesting, to talk about the dramatic downfall of people. Either way, the potential mental health consequences are tricky to ignore. Whilst taking drugs is in no way the same as signing yourself away to an asylum, perhaps mental health may be able add insight into the types of people attracted to drugs. A whopping 44% of cocaine is consumed by mental health disorder patients,and the National Bureau of Economic Reports finds a definite correlation between mental illness and the use of addictive substances. In many ways, this isn’t surprising; drugs can be a form of self-medication whilst having the potential to worsen underlying mental health conditions. However, it’s difficult to wholly trust this data as addiction itself can be considered a mental illness (as it changes the brain) and cocaine users tend not to be the easiest group to access to gain accurate data.

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Photo credit: Cobain

Unsurprisingly, a great deal of research has gone into the type of personality more likely to use drugs. Traditionally, it was thought that introverts gravitated towards depressants like alcohol, whilst extroverts sought out stimulants; however, this alone is far too simplistic as both groups may abuse alcohol on similar levels. Instead, a five-factor model of personality is more fitting; including neuroticism (characterised by negative thoughts), extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. People who score high on neuroticism and agreeableness (i.e. people with a tendency to be emotionally unstable and uncooperative – fun, right?) are more likely to have problems with drugs than people nearer to the centre. However, attempting to gauge what type of drugs people are likely to use is a tad more tricky. There is some evidence that sensation-seeking, neurotic and impulsive people are more likely to use harder drugs but sensation-seeking alone doesn’t always always scale with the use of hard drugs; weed smokers tend to score high in sensation-seeking but lower in neuroticism. But sensation-seeking is 60% heritable, as it’s related to your dopamine system, so I guess there’s another thing you can blame your parents for; if nothing else. Unfortunately, this data is still limited by the fact that it’s mainly taken from addicts. A drug addiction has a tendency to alter people’s personalities, at least whilst in it’s grips, it might be tricky to make wider generalisations.

And so, armed with this new knowledge, can I make any assumptions about that man in Lanzarote? After all, I’m a highly neurotic, creative and sensation seeking type and I’m spending my afternoon writing an article for bite. Perhaps he is the classic fit for a drug abuser, and we only temporarily stopped him from continuing down a spiral of self-destruction. Maybe it was just a bad day. I guess I’ll never know.

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